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Bill Clinton takes center stage

The Baltimore Sun

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- He's scrapping with reporters. Pushing his wife's candidacy. Lashing out at her top rival in the Democratic presidential race.

Former President Bill Clinton's recent aggressive tactics in the 2008 campaign have propelled him squarely to center stage - to the dismay of some prominent Democrats who fear he might be damaging the party's prospects for November.

The vocal role he is carving out also might be a preview, should Hillary Rodham Clinton win in the fall, of how the White House would operate under the unprecedented scenario of a president being married to an ex-president.

Clinton is using both the megaphone he commands and his popularity among Democrats to try to wrest a victory for his wife in Saturday's primary in South Carolina, a state where polls show she trails Barack Obama.

While dutifully touting his wife's credentials, the former president has tried to redefine Obama as a more calculating politician than voters might suspect. And he makes plain he is nursing grievances about how the campaign has unfolded.

Talking to a television reporter in Charleston the other day, Clinton accused the Obama campaign of orchestrating a "hit job" on him. He did not spell out what that meant. But it was the latest in a series of criticisms he has lobbed at the Illinois senator.

He clearly was peeved by Obama's comments about President Ronald Reagan. In a newspaper interview last week in Nevada, Obama opined that Reagan had changed the nation's "trajectory" more than Clinton or President Richard M. Nixon.

Clinton took that as an affront. "I thought we challenged the conventional wisdom in the '90s," he told reporters in a restaurant here.

It's not clear that his approach is working. Increasingly, Democratic civic leaders and political figures are saying the sight of the former two-term president immersed in a partisan scrum leaves them unnerved.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, said he talked by telephone with Clinton on Wednesday night and warned him that his behavior could scare off young, independent-minded voters the party needs in the general election.

Clyburn, who is black, said he heard no guarantees that Clinton would stop.

"I told him I was concerned whether this nomination would be worth having if we don't put this behind us," said Clyburn, who has remained neutral in the primary.

Others once closely associated with Clinton have taken exception to some of his assertions about Obama. Consider the dust-up over Reagan.

Robert B. Reich, who served as labor secretary in Clinton's administration, wrote in a blog posting yesterday: "For years, Bill Clinton and many other leading Democrats have made precisely the same point - that starting in the Reagan administration, Republicans put forth a range of new ideas while the Democrats sat on their hands."

In the short run, the Obama campaign is hoping for a backlash. Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, sent out a fundraising solicitation yesterday that cited Clinton's criticisms as a reason to contribute to her husband.

"In the past week or two, another candidate's spouse has been getting an awful lot of attention. ... What we didn't expect, at least not from our fellow Democrats, are the win-at-all-costs tactics we've seen recently," she wrote. "We didn't expect misleading accusations that willfully distort Barack's record."

During most of the year that his wife has been campaigning, Clinton was more subdued. Typically, he would vouch for Hillary Rodham Clinton's credentials and praise all the candidates. That changed when Obama started gaining traction - especially after he won the Iowa caucuses.

The former president began arguing that the news media had not properly vetted Obama. And he seemed resentful of how Obama was portrayed, as compared to his wife.

He told the audience in Charleston before the Iowa vote: "I watched her being called dishonest, phony and plastic."

In a reference to Obama, he said: "One candidate with four pollsters said she is poll-driven; she only had one."

Peter Nicholas writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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